(Guest Post by Ze’ev Wurman)
The betamax post about national curriculum reminded me of two incidents that illustrate the dangers of a sweeping centrally controlled policy. Both have to do with NCLB and its laudable — in my opinion — goal of making sure states are testing all kids on grade-level material and cannot game the system by testing more challenging demographics on assessments with lower expectations.
First is the case of Idaho and Computer Adaptive Testing. In the early 2000s Idaho initiated a computer adaptive statewide assessment, under a contract with NWEA. It was educationally sound and on the cutting edge of testing. No longer were kids assessed on content their grade level expected, but on what they actually knew. The test did not have the large ceiling or floor effects that made typical annual state assessments insensitive to what was actually happening with the best and the worst students, and that caused the somewhat justified attacks on NCLB as targeting the “middle kids” and neglecting the large edges of the achievement distribution.
Yet this smart and educationally sound initiative ran smack into NCLB’s inflexible rules that demand that all kids at every grade level are tested on exactly the same content. ED also argued that because kids are tested on individually-tailored assessments, this doesn’t allow perfect comparison between various educational units (schools, districts, or even classes) as NCLB requires. Under strong federal pressure Idaho folded and replaced its excellent test with a more conventional and much less educationally helpful one. But the feds in Washington were happy. Some time later ED allowed Oregon to use CAT in its testing but only after Oregon committed to use only grade-level items in the test, neutering much of the advantage and flexibility of CAT. You can read about it here (p. 29-49), here (p. 1-2) and here, as well as the poignant recollections of an Idaho Assessment & Accountability Commissioner here.
The second case turns around one of California’s brightest success stories of math education reform. In 1997 California set for itself probably the most ambitious educational goal in the nation: to make Algebra 1 the target for all its eighth graders, the same as our leading international competitors in the Far East. California was wise enough to realize such a major change cannot happen overnight and it installed a system of incentives and supports that encouraged preparation and placement of algebra-ready kids, but discouraged the placement of unprepared students, in algebra classes; unprepared students were encouraged to take another year of algebra prep in eighth grade. The system worked remarkably well and between 1999 and 2010 algebra taking by grade 8 quadrupled from 16% to 64%, with the fraction of proficient or advanced tripling between 2002 and 2010 from 11% to 32% of the cohort. More importantly, the achievement of minority and disadvantaged students increased at even higher rates during that period. By 2005 California also embarked on an effort to design a completely new program to assist even more students to prepare for algebra in grade 8 and in 2007 it adopted multiple series of innovative algebra-readiness texts developed by publishers at its request.
Yet, again, this successful and educationally brave effort ran smack into ED bureaucracy and its central-command mindset. In 2007 ED started to send Californian threatening letters (such as here and here) trying to force it to abandon its successful transition process and adopt Washington’s one-size-fits-all solution: either all eight graders will be tested on Algebra 1, or none will. ED pressure caused a battle to erupt in California between supporters and opponents of algebra in grade 8. A lawsuit ensued that stopped the successful program, and the cherry was ED fining California for non-compliance. The losers? California students and publishers, whose innovative algebra-readiness programs and textbooks languish on the shelves of their stockrooms.
It is worth noting that all the players in those events believed they were acting in the best interests of children. There are no evildoers in this story. What these incidents illustrate is what happens when centralized decisions are made in far-away Washington, DC, and the implementation is left to unaccountable bureaucrats.